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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Cover-up or incompetence?

In some ways I am not surprised by the revelation in today's Independent that one of Boris Johnson’s key aides turned messages to “disappear” in a key Covid WhatsApp group only weeks after the ex-PM promised a Covid public inquiry.

The level of chaos and incompetence that surrounded Johnson's regime was so great that anything was possible. And that is before we even consider the blatant profiteering associated with the government's VIP procurement lane, in which many friends and associates of Tory MPs won multi-million pound contracts.

The paper says that Martin Reynolds was grilled by the covid inquiry about switching the function to delete messages in the then-PM’s group April 2021,just after Mr Johnson announced an inquiry. Reynolds, who was Johnson’s principal private secretary, said he “cannot recall exactly why I did so” – before adding that he did not believe it was to “prevent” the inquiry having access to the messages:

The former No 10 official – dubbed “Party Marty” for his infamous ‘bring your own booze” drinks event email during Partygate – also said he was “deeply sorry” for his role in organising the garden party and Mr Johnson’s birthday gathering at No 10.

He said he was sorry for “my part in those events” and said he wanted to “apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused”.

It also emerged that chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance blasted Mr Johnson’s “ridiculous flip-flopping” on key Covid decisions – calling the then-PM “weak and indecisive” and “all over the place and completely inconsistent”.

And in scathing evidence, the nation’s top civil servant Simon Case said in September 2020 saying Mr Johnson’s inconsistent made it “impossible” to tackle the Covid crisis – saying the PM “cannot lead”.

The cabinet secretary said: “I am at the end of my tether. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day … IT HAS TO STOP!”

Mr Reynolds, grilled on why he had deleted messages, said he may have been worried about colleagues screenshotting the WhatsApp messages and leaking them to the media.

“I can speculate as to why I might have done it … It could, for example, have been because I was worried of someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them,” said Mr Reynolds.

The reference to Mr Johnson being “mad” was made in WhatsApp messages between Mr Case and Mr Reynolds from December 2021. Mr Case said: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”

Government by WhatsApp is clearly reducing transparency and accountability. Surely it is time to insist that all such messages are archived in future, and not deleted, so that ministers can be properly held to account.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Public services in doom spiral

The Guardian reports on the findings of the Institute for Government's annual report on the state of public services.

They say that Britain's public services are performing worse than before the pandemic, much worse than when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 and are stuck in a “doom loop” of recurring crises as a result of ministers’ short-term policymaking:

Warning that the “consequences of successive governments’ short-term policymaking” were coming home to roost, the IfG said that “public services that have for years been creaking are now crumbling”.

The thinktank said decades of capital underinvestment, combined with funding cuts and strike disruption, were having a serious impact on the productivity of public services, as exemplified by the school closures due to the risk of collapse from crumbling Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) shortly before the start of term.

Nick Davies, an IfG programme director and the report’s author, said: “Public services are in a dire state and will likely deteriorate further if whoever forms the next government sticks to current spending plans.

“Improvements are possible but difficult decisions will be necessary to break out of the negative cycle of short-termism that has characterised government decision-making, particularly in recent years.”

The IfG warned that although the current spending settlement, which runs until April 2025, initially appeared generous, its value had been eroded by high inflation. Spending plans from April 2025, which Labour has said it would stick to, would mean that all services other than children’s social care could be performing worse in 2027-28 than in 2019, a year when all services except schools underperformed in comparison to 2010.

The “incredibly tight” spending plans mean the settlements for unprotected areas of public spending average -1.2% a year in real terms, the report stated.

Noting that the UK “has long invested less in its public services than other wealthy nations”, the IfG said the government risked “getting stuck in a ‘doom loop’, with the perpetual state of crisis burning out staff and preventing services from taking the best long-term decisions”, and warned that “escaping this will not be easy”

They add that the report sets out four ways to remedy the situation: a new, more generous yet politically sustainable multi-year budget for each public service; a long-term capital programme covering buildings, equipment and IT; a stable long-term policy agenda, with far less churn among both ministers and officials; and improvements to pay negotiations, workforce planning, and working conditions to enable staff retention.

So far, there is no sign from either the Tories or Labour that such an agenda is on the table.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Another Brexit disaster

The Independent reports on the view of top economists that Britain’s beauty industry has suffered a £850m slump in exports to the EU since Brexit.

The paper says that experts believe that the sector has suffered from customs hold-ups and increased red tape costs since the UK quit the bloc in January 2020:

The Oxford Economics study, commissioned by the British Beauty Council, discovered a marked decline in exports to EU countries despite sales holding steady in the rest of the world.

The research also found that the decline in EU workers had created skills shortage in the sector, while small beauty firms have been “disproportionately damaged” by post-Brexit barriers.

“Covid is not the problem – Brexit is the problem,” British Beauty Council chief Millie Kendall told Bloomberg. “People have pulled out of territories.”

Sarah Chapman, founder of Skinesis, told the website her company has stopped exporting to Spain and had been hit by major problems in selling to Italy and others.

“Our distributors are now really insisting that unless we set up an EU warehouse, they won’t work with us,” she said. “Once somebody’s bought from you, if it takes so long to get a product, they just don’t buy directly from you again.”

They add that the latest study by the British Chambers of Commerce found that 49 per cent of UK exporters have struggled to boost sales, with some 28 per cent of small and medium sized manufacturers reporting a decrease in exports in the last quarter, while 45 per cent said there was no change.

Now, that definitely was not on the side of the bus.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Bad water

I suppose it was inevitable: an incompetent government struggling to manage appalling pollution in our rivers and on our beaches decide the best way to win the propaganda war is to relax the monitoring regime, so people will no longer know how bad it really is.

The Guardian reports that the UK government is to diverge from the EU’s standards for monitoring water quality in England, a move that has led Campaigners to fear that the change of approach could lead to more pollution in England’s rivers and waterways if the new measuring methods are less rigorous:

While in the EU, England was covered by the water framework directive (WFD), which meant a national chemical and ecological survey of rivers was conducted annually. After Brexit, the WFD was transposed into English law but the government removed the requirement to conduct annual tests.

This is the latest example of the UK diverging from EU environmental standards. Recent analysis found that many toxic chemicals and pesticides banned in the bloc since Brexit are not outlawed for use in the UK. Ministers have also sought to rip up EU-derived sewage pollution rules for housebuilders.

In 2019, the last time the full water assessments took place, just 14% of rivers were in good ecological health and none met standards for good chemical health. The government has said it does not intend to deliver a complete update until 2025, the latest permissible date under the new WFD.

The Guardian can reveal that the government will be using its own, as yet undisclosed methodology to assess river health. Activists say this may make it harder to compare the state of the country’s rivers against those in the EU, and will leave the public in the dark over pollution from sewage and agriculture.

Government officials met stakeholders to tell them about the change. A source from an NGO present in the meeting said: “When asked how this would affect assessments against the target set out in the government’s environment improvement plan, officials commented that this data would no longer be used for that purpose, and that Defra were looking to use the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) process to assessment performance. I question how developed the work on the NCEA is and whether this is suitable.”

The impact of this change will be that it is now unlikely that any data revealing whether or not the situation has improved since the 2019 study published in 2020, that shamed the government by showing no English river was in good chemical condition, will be published before the next general election. It is a spin doctor's dream.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Vetting the peers

The Guardian reports on comments by the new head of the House of Lords appointments commission that peers should be more robustly vetted for suitability.

The paper says that Ruth Deech was speaking in the light of public “disquiet” over candidates who appear to have been picked for being big donors or friends of those in power, though why it takes a public furore to come to what is a logical conclusion is not clear:

Ruth Deech, a leading lawyer and academic who was chosen by the government to lead the commission, said she wanted to push for peers to pass not just propriety vetting but an assessment of suitability, to determine whether they merit their appointment.

She would not be drawn on specific peers who may not be suitable to sit in the House of Lords. However, she told parliament’s public administration committee that there was “disquiet” about “people who apparently do not have the requisite qualities but appear to have been nominated because they have made very large donations or they are friends of people in power”.

Boris Johnson put forward a string of former advisers, donors and political friends for elevation to the House of Lords, and pushed for the approval of a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev, the newspaper proprietor and son of the former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, despite initial security concerns that were later withdrawn.

There has also been a controversy over Johnson’s nomination of two of the youngest ever peers in Charlotte Owen, a former junior No 10 aide, and Ross Kempsell, a senior Conservative official and former journalist.

There is also likely to be a furore in the coming weeks over the peerage list submitted by Liz Truss, who lasted seven weeks as prime minister.

Deech gave her assessment of the challenges facing the House of Lords appointments commission in evidence to the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, which approved her in the role on Thursday.

She told the MPs: “I would like to see every nominee assessed for suitability and not just propriety. Propriety is of course necessary, but it does not go far enough. I do not know if I can achieve it, but I think that every nomination ought to be checked, even if it is a bishop or a hereditary peer.”

Deech also suggested there should be a statement from the person nominating the peer and the person being nominated as to why they deserved a seat in the House of Lords. She said more transparency about what they had done and what they themselves hoped to do would help, and that it “would be public and available for interested people to read”.

Asked what might determine suitability, she suggested adherence to the Nolan principles of public life, but also “past achievement; integrity; not just policy formation, but the willingness and ability to see a policy through; contributions to public life; and what Sir Keir Starmer called oracy, which is the ability to present an argument fluently.”

On those peers who have given big donations, the new chair said she agreed with one of her predecessors that it “should not be a bar” but that “making a huge donation is not enough in itself” and that “one has to look at their other qualities”.

Somehow, I think Deech is swimming against the tide, and that nothing is going to stop Prime Ministers and party leaders from abusing the present system. Of course all this could be avoided if we just abolished the House of Lords altogether and replaced it with an elected second chamber.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

A light grilling

Was it really wise for the BBC Director-General to appear before the 1922 Committee to defend his organisation's coverage of the Middle East? 

When politicians start to dictate the way that the corporation can report news then we are on a very slippery slope, and Tim Davie, by his appearance, is encouraging them in thinking they can get away with it.

The Independent reports that immigration minister, Robert Jenrick used the opportunity to challenge the BBC director-general to call Hamas terrorists.during the closed-doors meeting:

A number of Tory MPs and Israeli president Isaac Herzog are among those angered by the decision.

“I’ve never been so disappointed in the BBC as I have been this past fortnight,” Mr Jenrick is understood to have said. “I worry that the organisation has lost the confidence of many people and in particular the British Jewish community.”

According to the Telegraph, the minister went on: “That loss of confidence began with the BBC’s refusal to call Hamas terrorists. Will you reconsider that, and change your editorial policy?”

Mr Jenrick’s challenge was rebuffed, as Mr Davie said nobody had banned the word “terrorist”.

The corporation does not call Hamas “terrorists” without attributing the word to others using it.

However, it has moved away from labelling the group “militants” and is instead describing it as a proscribed terrorist organisation by the UK government and others.

Putting pressure on the BBC like this is a common pursuit of governments of all parties, but it is rare for Director Generals to attend gatherings of MPs from just one party. It gives the impression that the corporation is open to political pressure when they should be standing above the fray.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Propping up the rich

Let's play a political game: You are Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, facing one of the worse cost-of-living crises for decades, people are suffering from an abnormally high tax burden due to your policies, so much so that even state pensioners with no other form of income could find themselves in the higher tax bracket in a few years' time, and because of your ideological insistence on not giving concessions to the EU, the economy is struggling to grow. But, you have some room for manoeuvre. How is the best way to use it to help the maximum number of people?

This is no game, it is the situation faced by Rishi Sunak today, and according to the Independent, he has decided to use his position to... push ahead with Liz Truss’s plan to axe the cap on bankers’ bonuses despite warnings that boosting bumper payouts for the rich is “obscene”.

As the paper explains, scrapping the limit on multimillion-pound bonuses for high earners is one of the only policies to survive the disastrous “Trussonomics” period last autumn:

Mr Sunak has approved his predecessor’s policy to get rid of the post-Brexit rules around capping bonuses – inherited from the EU when the UK was still a member.

The approval comes around a year after former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng first revealed plans to change the bonus rules as part of the mini-Budget fiasco, which sparked market panic.

Even Boris Johnson had reportedly backed away from taking the step because he feared a huge political backlash during the cost of living crisis.

On Tuesday, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Bank of England’s Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) confirmed that the current bonus cap will be lifted on 31 October.

The move – part of a bid to help London’s financial centre fend off competitors after Brexit – was immediately condemned by unions as “an insult to working people”.

The Independent explains that the cap – introduced despite UK opposition by the EU in 2014 in the wake of the banking crisis – requires bonuses to be limited to no more than 100 per cent of fixed pay, or double that with shareholder approval. It seems that in this post-Brexit world, Tory--run UK is now being run for the benefit of the bankers.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Whither the Tory Landlords?

Anybody who might be wondering why it is taking so long for the Westminister government to ban 'no-fault' evictions in England need look no further than this article in the Mirror.

The paper says that Tory landlords have laid into sweeping housing reforms which would end no-fault evictions responsible for driving tens of thousands of tenants out of their homes:

The Government sparked anger when it caved into pressure from Conservative MPs and lobbyists and delayed scrapping controversial Section 21 evictions, to the delight of wealthy property owners. In a fraught debate in the Commons, Tories with extensive portfolios demanded the Government doesn't clamp down on landlords - despite promising to do so.

MPs were told of numerous cases where Section 21 orders - which allow renters to be removed with no explanation - have been used by landlords to drive out tenants so they can ramp up rates. Although the Tories vowed to abolish these in their 2019 manifesto, Housing Secretary Michael Gove made a last-minute change to his long-awaited Renters Reform Bill stating this would only come into action when court backlogs ease. This could push the ban back years.

Ministers were accused of reaching a "grubby deal" to appease backbenchers and landlords. According to the latest register of members' interests, 80 Conservative MPs rent out properties in the UK, including Cabinet members Suella Braverman, Jeremy Hunt, Gillian Keegan, Lucy Frazer and Alex Chalk.

Nick Fletcher, who rents out six houses and four flats in South Yorkshire, said: "The simple fact of the matter is that the more bureaucratic and difficult we make renting for landlords, the more incentive they have to sell up and reduce the number of properties on the market. The fewer properties there are for rent, scarcity means the rents will increase.

"We should be helping landlords and tenants equally, not one over the other." He told Housing Secretary Michael Gove: "As Conservatives we understand the importance of sound economics to try not to interfere with the market, but I'm concerned the this Bill does just that."

If a councillor sought to influence policy in this way, in an area in which s/he had a financial interest, then they would be hauled before the Ombudsman for breach of the code of conduct. Why don't the same rules apply to MPs and other parliamentarians?

Monday, October 23, 2023

Welsh Senedd opening Pandora's box

The decision by the Welsh Senedd Presiding Officer to remove GB News from the Parliament's television feed has receievd a rather predictable reaction from the Welsh Tory leader, who, I understand is a regular performer on the channel.

Wales-on-line say that GB News is no longer allowed to be shown on any of the Senedd's TVs, which are dotted around only the internal walls of the building, because it is "contrary to the parliament's values", whatever they are:

A spokesperson for the Llywydd of the Parliament Elin Jones said: "GB News has been removed from the Senedd’s internal television system following a recent broadcast that was deliberately offensive, demeaning to public debate and contrary to our parliament’s values. There are now several ongoing Ofcom investigations into the channel. The Commission will discuss the issue at a future meeting, and staff and Members who wish to view GB News will still be able to do so online in the Senedd.” To get the latest political news and analysis, subscribe to our daily Wales Matters newsletter here.

GB News regularly hosts the Welsh Conservative leader of the opposition Andrew RT Davies. His comments on the channel include those where he incorrectly suggested that the Welsh Government was giving £1,600 to any asylum seeker who wanted to "rock up and claim they are crossing the Channel illegally". Mr Davies is currently under investigation from the standards commissioner over his comments.

Back in March Labour MS Jenny Rathbone called on the Llywydd to take this measure. She said in the chamber: "On a wider issue, GB News, which has been found in breach of Ofcom guidelines around Covid vaccines, has many items broadcasting disinformation or hateful views, and it's currently broadcast on our internal televisions. I just wondered if any thought had been given to whether it was appropriate for an organisation that might continue to disseminate disinformation to be broadcast through our systems to our staff and members."

At the time Ms Jones said that she hadn't considered the possibility of banning the station. "Coming on to your second point, it's something that I haven't given any thought to at all. I'll need to take away the issue that you've raised about GB News as a news channel—I think it's a news channel—that is transmitted within the Senedd. I make no comment at all on it, actually, because I've given it no thought at all, but I will since it's been raised by you."

There is no doubt in my mind that much of the content broadcast by this TV channel is right wing nonsense, and there is no way I would want to watch it, nor have it in my life. But is that a justification for banning it? In a democracy, should a Parliamentary body be taking value decisions such as this about broadcasters?

Rather predictably, the Welsh Tory leader, in a news item for GB News which I will refrain from linking to on grounds of taste and decency, has hit back, arguing that the Sennedd Commission should also remove the BBC given the national broadcaster’s numerous scandals over the years and their recent refusal to brand Hamas “terrorists”. And there is the dilemma in a nutshell.

Once you start banning things for any reason, but especially because of a political difference, you open a pandora's box, and people start popping up calling for other things to be banned, until you end up living in a dictatorship.

Clearly, removing GB News from the Senedd's TV feed cannot be in line with the Parliament's values, as a significant minority disagree with the decision. Unfortunately, the instinct to ban things and nanny people is an instinct all too common in the current Welsh Parliament.

If the Presiding Officer is wise, she will quietly drop this ban and let staff members and MSs watch what they want. To do otherwise must surely be against the values of a democratic society.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Nothing to see here - honest Guv

The Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak’s controversial fund to support startups during the Covid pandemic invested nearly £2m in companies linked to his wife.

The paper says that Carousel Ventures, a company part-owned by Akshata Murty’s venture capital firm, got an investment of £250,000 from the Future Fund to help fund its ownership of a luxury underwear business called Heist Studios:

It is the fourth business linked to Murty revealed to have received an investment from the fund set up by Sunak to support startups when he was chancellor during the Covid pandemic.

None of Murty’s investments that benefited from the Future Fund appear publicly on Sunak’s register of ministerial interests. Critics have raised concerns over a lack of transparency and the potential for a perceived conflict of interest given Sunak launched the scheme to help startups – a sector in which his wife is a known investor.

Other investors in Carousel Ventures via an intermediary fund include Andrew Griffith, a Conservative MP who is now a Treasury minister under Sunak, and Brent Hoberman, a businessman who publicly pleaded with Sunak to bring in such a scheme and “save our startups”.

The £250,000 loan to Carousel Ventures has now been converted into equity, so the UK taxpayer owns a small stake in the “revolutionary shapewear” company.

As well as Carousel Ventures, Murty also had shareholdings in New Craftsmen, which received a £250,000 Future Fund loan; Mrs Wordsmith, which got £1.3m from the fund; and Digme Fitness, which received an unknown amount over £125,000, according to the terms of the fund. All three businesses went into administration.

Part of the problem here is the lack of transparency:

The Guardian has identified 17 shareholdings that have been held by Murty or her venture capital company Catamaran Ventures UK at various points during Sunak’s time as chancellor or prime minister, none of which he voluntarily disclosed. Koru Kids is still the only one to have been declared.

Those not previously in the public domain include a health and beauty range based on Chinese medicine called Elemental Herbology; a luxury jeweller, Fentons; a fashion website, LuxFix; and a now defunct gym business called Resonant Frequency.

Catamaran Ventures UK is funded by Murty personally through a £4m interest-free loan. It recently announced that it was being wound down.

She has rarely talked about her business interests in public but in 2017 Murty is understood to have given a presentation to delegates at a trade department event, presenting her shareholdings as part of her billionaire father Narayana Murthy’s overarching business empire.

The slide presentation, seen by the Guardian, described Catamaran as a “family office (private capital) founded by Indian tech entrepreneur NR Narayana Murthy with locations in Bangalore and London”, suggesting the London office was an offshoot of the overall Murty empire.

It said there was a “strong focus in India on private investments … education, technology, healthcare, consumer key sectors” while the “focus in London [is] on the consumer sector – brands in their growth phase”.

It listed London-based brands Digme Fitness, Bing! of Acamar Studios and Bloom and Wild in a graphic under the same umbrella as her father’s firm’s investments in Paperboat, Amazon India, Infosys and Yebhi.

None of Sunak’s father-in-law’s business interests or his wife’s £600m-plus stake in Infosys, a major Indian IT company, appear on the prime minister’s public register of ministerial interests

Surely, it is time for a change in the rules around ministerial interests.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

But, what about the buses?

In many ways the Welsh Government's updated finance statement was both predictable and tame. As ever the Finance Minister avoided all the hard decisions and instead moved some cash around, sent a begging letter to the UK treasury and trimmed a few spending lines here and there. I suspect the really hard sums will come in the next budget round, but we will see.

As Wales-on-line reports, one of the big winners was Transport for Wales, who were given an extra £125m to spend on trains, but that does not avert the real damage to transport from the reduction in bus subsidies, which have been already implemented and will lead to many services being axed or reduced in a few weeks time.

The fact is, that for a fifth of the money being given to the Minister's train set, most of those cuts could have been averted.

Investing in trains is, of course, a good idea. It will help people to reduce the number of long distance car journeys they might otherwise have had to take. But losing bus services is far more damaging to the environment than not spending cash on our railways.

If there are fewer buses, people will have to rely on cars and that means there will be more short distance journeys with all the pollution and congestion that accompanies such a trend. In addition, there is an economic and social cost.

Buses reach communities that trains cannot. Cutting services will leave many people stranded and unable to seek work. Leisure opportunities will be reduced and fanilies will become more isolated. 

Isn't it about time the Welsh Government got the basics right before spending money on the big schemes like railway stations and new rolling stock?

Perhaps, they could do both. But to do one and not the other is a serious miscalculation.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Invest or decline

The Guardian contains an interesting report on the findings of the UK's National Infrastructure Commission.

This independent body of experts has concluded that the UK’s infrastructure needs a big cash injection, with public transport, home heating and water networks all in dire need of renewal. They say that investments, of about £30bn a year from the taxpayer and £40bn to £50bn a year from the private sector, would result in savings to the average household of at least £1,000 a year, higher economic productivity, and a better quality of life in the future:

An overhaul of energy is at the heart of the report, aiming to generate more from renewable sources, while ensuring a baseload supply from gas-fired power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage technology. Installing heat pumps for nearly all households and upgrading insulation, at a cost of about £3.2bn a year, will also be key.

Cars and roads alone will not be enough to keep transport moving, and far greater investment in public transport is needed, the panel of experts found, in a 222-page report that took more than two years to compile. This is only the second such five-yearly infrastructure report since the NIC was set up in 2015 by the then chancellor, George Osborne.

Sir John Armitt, the chair of the NIC, called on the government to take urgent action. “The good news is that modern, reliable infrastructure can support economic growth, help tackle climate change and enhance the natural environment,” he said. “People often talk about infrastructure as the backbone of our economy: what our infrastructure needs now is the collective mettle to turn commitments into action that will reap rewards for decades to come.”

In a comprehensive assessment of the infrastructure that will be needed to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, keep the UK’s core services running and ensure that businesses can be competitive internationally, the NIC made 46 key recommendations.

Many are likely to be regarded as highly controversial by the government, including:

* Substantial investment in public transport for England’s biggest cities must be accompanied by restrictions on car access to alleviate congestion.

* Hydrogen must not be used for home heating, despite government enthusiasm for the technology. Hydrogen should be exploited for use in heavy industry.

* People on lower incomes should have heat pumps installed free, while the other two-thirds of households should receive subsidies of £7,000 each for their installation. Upgrading homes with high levels of insulation is not needed before installing heat pumps.

*Water meters should be compulsory for households and businesses.

* No new waste incinerators should be built, and recycling rates need to improve.

The decision to cancel the northern leg of HS2 was “deeply disappointing” and “leaves a major gap in the UK’s rail strategy”. Armitt said it would result in an “overload” of the west coast mainline, or encourage more people and freight on to the roads.

While the required increase in upfront investment will be substantial, at £30bn a year of public investment compared with the £20bn a year of the past decade, the report found that it would result in lower household energy bills, owing to the much lower costs of running renewable energy systems compared with high gas prices. The average household will save at least £1,000 a year by the mid-2030s if the recommendations are followed, according to NIC estimates.

Water companies must also step up their efforts to cut leaks, and invest in new reservoirs and pipelines for the future, the NIC found. Climate breakdown will bring more frequent droughts and floods, which will also require new infrastructure, much of which will have to be in the form of “soft” flood measures such as water meadows and allowing “wiggle” room for rivers, rather than concrete flood barriers.

This report demonstrates a major weakness in our economy. If we don't invest in new, green infrastructure then our economy will continue to flounder. It's time for decisive action from government.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

No room for tax cuts

Infamously, Liz Truss went ahead and wrecked the UK economy despite expert advice which warned her of the consequences of her actions. 

It is unlikely that she and her faction will take much notice of the latest warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies therefore, who argue that the government has no room for unfunded pre-election tax cuts despite having pushed through a “colossal” £52bn a year stealth raid on household incomes on Rishi Sunak’s watch.

Fortunately, Truss is no longer in charge, but her group remains influential and continues to exert pressure on UK Tory Ministers, many of whom sympathise with her aim of cutting taxes in the belief that such an act will stimulate growth.

The Guardian reports that Britain’s foremost economics thinktank have said that the dire state of the public finances means that attention-grabbing tax cuts risk stoking inflation, leading to higher Bank of England interest rates and a lengthy recession:

On Sunak’s watch, tax revenues as a share of the British economy are on track to climb to the highest sustained levels since the second world war – in part driven by a six-year freeze on income tax thresholds, a policy first introduced during his time as Boris Johnson’s chancellor.

Known as “fiscal drag” and expanded by Jeremy Hunt last year, the IFS said the policy would raise a “colossal” £52bn a year for the exchequer by 2027-28. Suggesting the government may find its plans tough to maintain under heavy political fire, it said the freeze meant as many as 6.5 million more people would pay tax on their income compared with 2020, while 4.5 million more people would be dragged into higher income tax thresholds.

In its annual “green budget” health check before Hunt’s autumn statement next month, the IFS warned the UK remained stuck between weak economic growth on the one hand and the risk of persistently high inflation on the other.

A decision by the chancellor to relax the purse strings “might give a short-term economic sugar rush, but could prove unsustainable and ultimately mean a protracted recession as interest rates rise even further to bring inflation back under control”, it said.

Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, said Britain was “in a horrible fiscal bind”, leaving Hunt or an incoming Labour government with little room to radically change tax and spending plans. “The price of our high levels of indebtedness, failure to stimulate growth and high borrowing costs is likely to be a protracted period of high taxes and tight spending.”

Actually, the most revealing part of Johnson's statement is that the so-called low-tax Tories have actually increased our tax burden and added to the cost-of-living burden faced by families across the UK. Look to what they do, not what they say.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Another Brexit failure

For those of us who remember the racist campaign run by a number of leave-orientated organisations back in 2016, the claim that we need to leave the EU to curb immigration was the most ridiculous. 

After all, the free movement of individuals within the EU served to only benefit the UK economy, while the people these campaigns were really targetting, those with a different skin colour to them, were entering the UK from outside the economic free trade area, and in many cases had legitimate reasons to do so.

Nevertheless, the implicit claim behind Nigel Farage's Breaking Point poster was that if we leave the EU then net migration will fall. Naturally, that hasn't happened and Brexit is one of the reasons why that is the case.

The Mirror reports that estimates from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University and the London School of Economics (LSE) suggest around 250,000 to 350,000 more people will arrive than depart a year by 2030, meaning net migration to the UK is unlikely to fall below pre-Brexit levels by the end of the decade.

The study finds that predictions of lower net migration levels following Brexit are unlikely to happen - largely due to a significant increase in work visas. Rishi Sunak was forced to deny he'd lost control of rising migration but said numbers were “too high” earlier this year amid a backlash from Tory MPs over Brexit commitments to take back control of Britain's borders. Conservative-led Governments have been promising to reduce the numbers for more than a decade.

The latest forecast, based on migration trends and official data, suggests that high levels of immigration over the last two years may lead to more people leaving between 2023 and 2025. That would largely be driven by international students, while smaller numbers of people coming from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

LSE Professor Alan Manning, who co-authored the report, said: "Nobody can predict exactly what will happen to net migration, but we can set out some realistic scenarios. And most plausible scenarios involve net migration falling in the coming years.

"But many different factors affect the outlook, including what share of international students switch to long-term work visas, whether work visa numbers continue to increase as sharply as they have done in the past few years, and what happens to asylum applications. The unpredictability means it's very hard for policymakers to guarantee that they will deliver a specific level of net migration."

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said that health and care visas were helping to keep the figures high. "One of the striking findings is that if current trends continue, work visas look set to be the largest factor shaping overall net migration by some distance. Work-related migration has mostly been driven by health and care," she said. So future migration patterns will be particularly sensitive to developments in that sector."

Record numbers of small boats also continue to cross the channel, largely because the UK Government did not negotiate a return clause in the Brexit agreement, but also because the government have not put enough resources into assessing asylum claims and have refused to set up an assessment centre on the other side of the channel.

The Tories have lost control of the situation and their promises have turned out to be irrelevant and meaningless.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The cost of electric

The Independent has an update on the crisis facing the electric car industry, which I last blogged on here.

The paper says that industry bosses believe that electric cars will cost British motorists an extra £6,000 if Rishi Sunak fails to strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU on tariffs. They add that UK manufacturers have warned of a “devastating price war” on consumers – threatening both the electric vehicle (EV) market and the UK’s climate change commitments – if these tariffs are enforced in January 2024:

In the latest major Brexit row, the Sunak government is pushing the European Commission to agree to delay the costly new rules set to come in at the start of next year as part of Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal.

But Brussels has shown no sign it is willing to budge – leaving business leaders in despair about the impact of 10 per cent tariffs on exports on Britain’s car industry.

The tariffs would increase the price of a new Tesla Model Y – the UK’s most popular electric vehicle – by £6,000 or more, according new report by the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations, shared with The Independent.

“For the sake of our economy and our planet, the government has a responsibility to get round the table with the EU, fix this and fix the raft of other issues with the Brexit deal,” said commission director Mike Buckley.

The new rules of origin agreed in the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) require 45 per cent of an electric car’s value to originate in the UK or EU to qualify for trade without tariffs.

The British auto industry has warned the 2024 rules pose an “existential threat” to sales because of the lack of domestic batteries to meet the rules – pleading for a delay until 2027.

The VDA – the lobby group for Germany’s car industry – has also called for an “urgent” move to delay, warning that the rules create a “significant competitive disadvantage” for European carmarkers in relation to China and other Asian competitors.

The new report by the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations – backed by the manufacturers body MakeUK and British Chamber of Commerce – warns that the January tariffs will immediately push up costs and hit electric vechile sales.

The trade expert added: “It’s imperative that the government gets round the table with the EU and sorts this situation as soon as it can. Industry needs assurance that it won’t be forced to make consumers pay even more, in these toughest of economic times.”

The trade commission, which examines the ongoing impacts of the Brexit trade deal, also warned that it could set back Mr Sunak’s hopes of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The PM has already been accused of hurting the EV market by pushing back a ban on petrol and diesel car sales from 2030 to 2035.

The trade commission said the failure to agree an extension of the grace period would cut EV production by up to 480,000.

“That number of extra fossil fuel cars on the road would add over 807 billion grams of carbon to the atmosphere across the UK and EU,” said director Mr Buckley. “Given the UK is already on track to miss climate targets on nearly every front any further obstacle spells disaster.”

The report also called on the Sunak government to pursue a deal for the UK to remain part of the EU VAT area, so that companies do not have to pay the tax when importing goods. It also recommended an agri-food agreement that simplifies border checks would benefit the food and drink trade.

As Buckley says, this is "just one example of how the Brexit deal is placing long-term limitations on the UK economy and making it hard to get growth, jobs and end the cost of living crisis.” The impact of Brexit on the UK economy is huge and not in a good way.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Is the Met out of control?

The Guardian reports that metropolitan police officers are openly defying orders not to wear badges appropriated by the far right and linked to white supremacy.

The paper says that in July, the force’s chief, Mark Rowley, banned officers from wearing the “thin blue line” badge saying that in the US an equivalent symbol had been used by “hard-right groups”. However, images have emerged of Met officers wearing the symbol late last month as they policed a stand-off between LGBTQ+ rights supporters and a rightwing group over a drag act’s performance at the Honor Oak pub in Lewisham, south London:

Campaigners said it was “worrying” that officers at the protest organised by Turning Point UK (TPUK) felt they could challenge Rowley’s authority with apparent impunity.

In the US, the police’s use of the thin blue line symbol has proved divisive, with some forces banning it after it was worn on face masks by officers policing Black Lives Matter protests, with the symbol also seen at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021.

However, the wearing of it by UK police has been supported by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, who questioned Rowley’s banning of the badge, and in her recent Conservative party conference speech singled out firearms police for praise, describing them as “the thin blue line”.

Her reference to firearms police concerns the hundreds of Met officers who last month temporarily stepped back from duties after a colleague was charged with murdering Chris Kaba, 24, who was shot last September.

Rowley banned his officers wearing the insignia – a black and white Union flag with a thin horizontal blue line – before policing Pride celebrations amid concerns it could offend the LGBTQ+ community.

That officers chose to wear it during sensitive policing at a protest by a rightwing group against a storytelling session by the drag act That Girl is, say campaigners, pointedly provocative.

One officer wearing the badge at the protest was pictured beside rightwing activist Laurence Fox days after he made misogynistic remarks about the political journalist Ava Evans.

Kevin Blowe, coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), which works with communities to expose violent and oppressive policing, said: “Within the particular circumstances of Honor Oak, the need for greater sensitivity was apparent and the fact orders weren’t followed is worrying.

“If you’re policing that kind of incredibly sensitive situation, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you’re not identifying yourself with people from the far right.”

Blowe added that the fact some officers felt emboldened enough to ignore the Met commissioner suggests an ugly mentality was alive and well, despite Rowley’s attempts to change the culture of the force, which was described in a report earlier this year as institutionally homophobic, misogynistic and racist.

This does not augur well for attempts by the Met to reform and win the confidence of the public.

Friday, October 13, 2023

March of the Welsh nanny state

Allowing people to take responsibility for their own choices does not tend to feature very often in the Welsh Labour Government's agenda, they would much rather be controlling our choices than educating us about them.

That is evident in the latest nonsense from First Minster, Mark Drakeford who, according to the BBC, believes that vapes should only be available on prescription for people quitting smoking. This is despite the fact that he has also quoted the Australian government's website as saying that there was "insufficient evidence" to promote their use for stopping smoking.

Consistency does not appear to be a strong point.

The reasoning behind Drakeford's wish to prevent the sale of vapes is that they are harmful. Now, I certainly support him in seeking to prevent the sale to those under the age of 18, but for adults, surely it should be their choice, and the Welsh Government's role to inform that choice. There is no evidence, as with cigarettes, that second hand vape smoke can impact on the health of non-vapers.

If the Welsh Government are going to ban things on the basis that they are harmful to users then they should also be looking at banning cigarettes, alcohol, and anything that pollutes the atmosphere and damages people's health.

For some reason I don't see Welsh Labour Ministers proposing any of that.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Another Brexit mess

To be fair, this latest issue with Brexit may not have been on the side of the bus, but those of us opposed to leaving did warn that it would happen.

The Independent reports that British citizens living abroad face being locked out of their pensions because of post-Brexit rules which see bank accounts shut down:

Britain’s exit from the EU has caused some British banks to re-examine which bank accounts they let non-UK residents keep open.

And finance experts are warning that retirees living in Europe are struggling to access their savings as accounts are closed, in yet another Brexit headache.

They say pension providers are less likely to offer services to British expats – leading to “big problems” in moving pension money into drawdown or making other changes to contributions.

Paul Beard, chief executive of Alexander Beard Group, told The Telegraph that dozens of UK expats had contacted him saying their pension provider had refused “point blank” to pay out money.

Philip Teague, of Cross Border Financial Planning, told the newspaper that his firm was “starting to uncover some big problems for our clients who have got these very vanilla regular pensions”.

The financial planner accused pension providers of failing to offer good advice to older expats who have seen their bank accounts shut about how to access their money.

He added: “We’re proactively starting to feed complaints through to them which will ultimately end up with the Financial Ombudsman because of [providers’] lack of communication in this area.”

HMRC rules mean Britons who are a resident overseas cannot move UK pensions to a new company. So expat pensioners are dealing with complicated overseas transfer processes, which can see them lose up to 25 per cent in tax to access their savings.

And moving pension money into drawdown to release an income is considered “cross-border business” by many providers.

They add that thousands of Britons living in EU states were told by UK banks that their accounts would be shut after the initial Brexit transition period ended. Lloyds Banking Group said it had shut 13,000 accounts of expats in Europe.

And to think that people were complaining about red tape when we were in the EU. Since leaving it's got a whole lot worse.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Gagging the victims

The Independent reports that police have used hundreds of gagging orders to silence victims of misogyny, amid concerns forces are trying to “sweep the issue under the carpet”.

The paper says that new figures reveal forces in England and Wales have imposed 243 non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or other types of gagging orders, to stop staff from talking about their treatment following employment tribunal claims, in the past five years. More than half of these, a total of 133 were issued by the Metropolita Police:

The figures, obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), which represents police staff, come as it called on police chiefs to stop using NDAs.

Only one police force, Durham Constabulary, responded to the FOI request to say they had ceased their use in relation to discrimination complaints.

In an address on rooting out misogyny, given to the PFEW annual conference on Tuesday, Sue Honeywill, its joint wellbeing and women’s group lead, said: “The question must be asked, why enforce the silence? Are chief constables trying to sweep cases under the carpet? Is the reputation of the force more important than justice for the victim?

“The only way we will regain the trust and confidence of the victims and the wider public is to face up to wrongdoing, deal with the perpetrators and implement changes where they are needed.

“We therefore publicly call on chief constables to cease the use of clauses in NDAs, COT3 [a settlement between employer and employee] and settlements that seek to silence the victim from being to speak about their experience if they choose to.

“Let’s not be afraid of the negative coverage this may entail. We need to focus and we need to learn. Only then will we be able to move forward.”

Her comments come after PFEW chair Steve Hartshorn wrote to police and crime commissioners last year, warning that the use of police NDAs was “on a par with how whistleblowers in the NHS were silenced”.

He wrote: “We believe that no police officer should ever be required to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to settle a claim.

“We believe that too often forces treat the cases our members bring as an unproven aberration rather than valuable learning, much less highlight the issues raised internally or inform other forces about the mistakes they have made so they can consider how they might respond.”

So far this year, the PFEW had already logged 68 employment civil matters, relating to sexual harassment, maternity, pregnancy and victimisation, Ms Honeywill told the conference.

Sweeping misbehaviour under the carpet is no way to win the confidence of the public.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Not such a safe place

The UK Government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda continued to unravel today with the Guardian revealing that a Human Rights Watch report has found that Rwandan authorities are coordinating a systematic campaign of repression at home and abroad against political activists, suspected dissidents and their family members.

The paper says that the US-based rights group has detailed an alleged campaign of extraterritorial killings, kidnappings and intimidation, as well as arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances on Rwandan soil:

The 115-page report, which covers the years since 2017, also accuses the government in Kigali of routinely abusing global judicial and police mechanisms, including the Interpol system, in its determination to return perceived enemies to Rwanda.

Published in the week that the UK supreme court hears the home secretary’s appeal against a June court ruling deeming it unlawful to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the report represents a challenge to Suella Braverman’s claim that Rwanda is a safe destination and reliable partner.

Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan opposition leader who spent eight years in prison on terrorism charges, said: “This report exposes the reality of the Rwandan regime. The principles of civilian government have been completely ignored in Rwanda.”

HRW calls on the UK to rescind the migration and economic development partnership that Braverman’s predecessor, Priti Patel, signed with Rwanda in 2022, in light of the “real risks” that asylum seekers would face, and to investigate threats to Rwandan residents in Britain and make future assistance to the aid-dependent African state conditional on significant change to its “repressive practices”.

This picture of Rwanda is a million miles away from Boris Johnson’s description of the country as a place where asylum seekers could “prosper and thrive”, and must surely raise further doubts about the government's alliance with them.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Sunak's northern transport plans start to fall apart

If there is one thing anybody involved with transport knows, it is that upgrades and new projects take careful planning and years of preparation before ground is broken, and that if you're going to start making rash promises from notes on the back of an envelope, you'd better be ready to back them up with a business case that shows that they are affordable and achieveable. Why did nobody tell Rishi Sunak that?

The Guardian reports that documents detailing projects to be funded with savings from scrapping HS2 have been deleted from a government website, with one minister describing the announcements of new transport schemes as just giving “examples” of what the money could be spent on rather than the concrete pledge implied by the Prime Minister in his conference speech:

The documents detailed an extra £100m of funding for a mass transit “underground” project in Bristol. Mention of plans to invest £36bn in projects around the north and Midlands, including reopening Transport North East’s Leamside line, were also removed from the government’s website.

“We gave some examples to people about the sorts of things – and we know these things are priorities locally – the sorts of things that that money could be spent on, and to bring it to life for people,” the transport secretary, Mark Harper, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire on Sunday.

The deletions on Wednesday night included removing an entire page where the government pledged to “revolutionise mass transit in Bristol’. It appeared to have been replaced with a broader pledge to give the west of England combined authority £100m, which it could spend on various projects in the region.

Asked if Bristol was going to get a new mass transit system, Harper said: “My department published a document which set out very clearly what we are going to spend the £36bn on that we are saving from cancelling the second phase of HS2.

“The money that was promised for Bristol is for £100m extra for the elected mayor of the west of England combined authority and that is money that he will have available to spend on his projects including on a mass transit system... some of those things are already being delivered.”

In other words the government have no idea how they are going to spend the £36bn and are hoping others might step up and do it for them. What an embarrassment for Sunak.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Tories putting golf courses ahead of fuel poverty

Rishi Sunak's wholesale retreat from the war on climate change is beginning to resemble Napoleon's ragged and humiliating flight from Moscow. In this case though, the casualties could be much greater as man-made changes in Earth's climate leads to poverty, famine, premature deaths and the possible near-extinction of the human race.

The Prime Minister's latest wheeze, designed to appease backwoods Tories representing rural areas, is to restrict the installation of solar panels on swathes of English farmland, a proposal that climate campaigners say will raise bills and put the UK’s energy security at risk.

The Guardian reports that solar panels in the countryside are disliked by many rural Conservative MPs, so, of course, Sunak and environment secretary Thérèse Coffey have revived plans to put new restrictions on this form of cheap renewable energy.

This is despite that fact that the then prime minister, Liz Truss attempted to block solar from most of the country’s farmland last year, but the plans were deeply controversial and unpopular, and were dropped when she left office:

This is the latest weakening of green policies ahead of the general election, which started when the Conservatives won the Uxbridge byelection, a result widely attributed to anger around Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra low emissions zone.

Sunak recently announced that the 2030 phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars will be pushed back to 2035, as well as weakening the 2035 gas boiler phase-out, confirming it will apply to far fewer homes. The government also plans to scrap pollution rules for housebuilders in sensitive areas, where they are currently not able to add to sewage pollution without paying to improve nearby wetlands.

It has also faced criticism for its record on renewables, with its stance on onshore wind referred to by industry as an effective block, and the recent government renewable energy auction failing to sign up any offshore wind.

Sunak will further dilute green policies, say campaigners by giving new powers to planning officials in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). These would allow officials to block any solar project that can be argued to “put food security at risk” – that is, anywhere food is grown.

Ministers are understood to believe that food security should be on par with energy security and will use recent climate breakdown-related food shortages in Europe and the war in Ukraine as justification for the change.

The framework amendment to the NPPF was drafted by Greg Smith, the MP for Buckinghamshire, who has long campaigned against solar panels on farmland. He said: “This is a clear, straightforward protection that planning authorities up and down the land can use to say this development on this farmland isn’t going to hit our food security in this area, or this one over here is and therefore use that as a good reason to turn down applications.”

Coffey confirmed the NPPF will be coming out later this year and that “the first purpose [of farmland] must have to be about food production”.

Energy experts have strongly criticised the plans. Lydia Collas, senior policy analyst at Green Alliance, said: “Solar energy will help us move away from polluting fossil fuels, and in the long term protect UK farming from climate breakdown. Restricting ground-mounted solar would be gravely short-sighted. ”

Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, added: “It is mindblowing that as the UK faces yet another winter of unaffordable energy costs caused by reliance on dirty gas, the government would make it still more difficult to build the clean, cheap energy we desperately need.

“The idea that solar power could interfere with the UK’s food security is utterly detached from reality. Solar power generated over 8% of all our electricity this spring, but takes up less land than golf courses. This is part of an abysmal streak of energy policy from the government, including failing to properly unblock onshore wind, failing to get any new offshore wind, and trying to press ahead with incredibly dangerous new oil drilling.”

To be fair, putting the preservation of golf courses ahead of energy security and tackling fuel poverty is a hell of a legacy for Sunak to leave office with.

Saturday, October 07, 2023


The Mirror reports that Tory ministers have invited American rail bosses to visit Britain next week to learn lessons from the botched HS2 project.

The paper says that executives from California High Speed Rail will arrive on Wednesday for a two-day trip organised by Kemi Badenoch’s Department for Business and Trade:

The jaunt, which is supposed to show off British expertise and best practice, comes just days after Rishi Sunak ditched the HS2 leg to Manchester.

The U.S. delegation will hold one day of talks with Government officials including from the Department for Transport in Whitehall. They will then spend a second day touring HS2 construction sites, including tunnelling works near Birmingham, as well as meeting the team behind Crossrail.

Topics due to be discussed include how best to deliver high speed rail projects including what lessons can be learnt on public communication strategy and costs.

The PM announced at the Tory party conference that he was axing a massive part of HS2 after the scheme had more than doubled in cost. The line, which was originally due to connect Manchester and Leeds with London, will now only run between Birmingham and the capital.

Critics including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham have accused the Government of betraying the North. Mr Sunak claimed that changes to HS2 would save £36billion with the cash going to alternative road and rail projects across the country. But many of the schemes are simply re-announcements of projects that have been repeatedly promised by the Tories but never delivered.

California’s high-speed rail line was promised in 2008 and was supposed to more than halve journey times between San Francisco and Los Angeles to below three hours. But it has faced delays and rising costs, with the first 178-mile section expected to open in 2030.

You really couldn't make this stuff up.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Our surveillance state

The Guardian reports that dozens of cross-party MPs and peers have joined a campaign for an “immediate stop” to the use of live facial recognition surveillance by police and private companies.

The paper says that the former cabinet minister David Davis, the Liberal Democrats leader, Sir Ed Davey, the Green MP Caroline Lucas and the former shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti are among 65 members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to call for a halt to the technology’s use:

The campaign is spearheaded by the privacy advocate Big Brother Watch and is also backed by 31 groups including Liberty, Amnesty International and the Race Equality Foundation.

Police have deployed live facial recognition at large-scale public events, including King Charles’s coronation.

The statement said: “We hold differing views about live facial recognition surveillance, ranging from serious concerns about its incompatibility with human rights, to the potential for discriminatory impact, the lack of safeguards, the lack of an evidence base, an unproven case of necessity or proportionality, the lack of a sufficient legal basis, the lack of parliamentary consideration, and the lack of a democratic mandate.

“We call on UK police and private companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance.”

The statement comes after the policing minister, Chris Philp, announced government plans to make UK passport photos searchable by police.

Philp said he planned to integrate data from the police national database (PND), the Passport Office and other national databases to help police find a match with the “click of one button”. Civil liberty campaigners said the plans would be an “Orwellian nightmare” that amounted to a “gross violation of British privacy principles”.

Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan police commissioner, last month predicted that facial recognition technology would transform criminal investigations as much as DNA testing had done.

The director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said: “The UK’s reckless approach to face surveillance makes us a total outlier in the democratic world, especially against the backdrop of the EU’s proposed ban.

"As hosts of the AI summit in autumn, the UK should show leadership in adopting new technologies in a rights-respecting way. There must be an urgent stop to live facial recognition, parliamentary scrutiny and a much wider democratic debate before we introduce such a privacy-altering technology to British life.”

There are a number of issues here, including the fact that facial recognition can be discriminatory, but the key one has to be lack of accountability and oversight. Once you start linking up databases and tying them into dodgy surveillance techniques such as facial recognition, you start impinging on people's privacy and making mistakes that could even get people killed.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

UK Government to exacerbate winter homeless crisis

The Independent reports that more than 50,000 refugees in the UK could become homeless by the end of the year, new analysis suggests, with many already living on the streets in tents because of shrinking government support.

The paper says that refugees who are granted asylum were previously given 28 days by the Home Office to find somewhere new to live, set up a bank account, and find a job or apply for universal credit before they are kicked out of their government-funded hotel.

However, some now have as little as seven days because the government is delaying giving asylum seekers the documents they need to try and secure housing, while a lack of affordable housing and an increase in the number of asylum grants being made is putting increasing demand on homelessness charities:

British Red Cross has estimated that 53,100 refugees will be at risk of homelessness this winter if the government clears all “legacy” asylum applications by the end of the year, as it has promised.

Even if the backlog is not cleared on time, an estimated 26,000 people could still be at risk of destitution and homelessness, the charity has warned.

Refugees are given seven days’ notice of their eviction from Home Office hotels, and cannot usually get housing support from their local authority without the letter. Councils are also prioritising families for help, leaving many single male refugees to live homeless on the street.

Since the changes at the beginning of August, British Red Cross services have seen a 140 per cent increase in destitution for refugees they support – from 132 in June and July, to 317 people in August and September.

It is now handing out sleeping bags and tents to people facing life on the streets.

Charity Refugees at Home, which matches refugees with rooms, has seen referrals increase from 70 last September to 223 last month. One Sudanese refugee, Hamad, 20, who has now been supported by the charity, had to live in a London park after he was granted refugee status in the UK and given seven days to leave his hotel.

This is a crisis that needs to be addressed urgently, and underlines why we need more affordable homes and quickly.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Politics on the edge

Where do we start with the ongoing car crash that is the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester? 

Do we highlight the endless lies and distortions they are putting out about 15 minute cities, Labour's meat tax and councils forcing people to have seven bins, or should we look to signs of a more fundamental shift to right wing authoritarianism with gay bashing and the racist rhetoric that would have made Enoch Powell blush, and by the daughter of immigrants at that?

For me the most disturbing aspect so far is the way that the Tories are starting to mirror Trump and his hard right shock troops in the US Republican party, appealing to the sort of macho nationalism that mirrors the National Socialist Party's rise to power in Germany in the early 1930s. The Mirror has two examples.

The paper reports that a senior London Tory has been thrown out of Suella Braverman's Tory Conference speech after accusing the Home Secretary of launching a "homophobic rant".
They say that Braverman was interrupted 20 minutes into her diatribe by London Assembly member Andrew Boff. He branded her speech a "homophobic rant" and accused Ms Braverman of making the Tories seem "transphobic and homophobic":

Mr Boff, who has been a Tory for over 50 years, reacted to a segment of Ms Braverman's address in which she claimed the UK "would go properly woke" under Keir Starmer. She ranted: "Highly controversial ideas are presented to workforces and the public as if they are motherhood and apple pie.

"Gender ideology. White privilege. Anti-British history."

Mr Boff - who described himself as a "loyal Tory" - told reporters that Ms Braverman had been speaking "trash". He said: "It's making our Conservative Party look transphobic and homophobic. This isn't what our Conservative Party is all about."

He was removed from the conference centre, but Ms Braverman later said: "Andrew Boff’s heckles were silly but I think he should be forgiven and let back into conference." The Home Secretary appeared unphased by the heckling and lapped up applause as she warned "millions" of migrants could be heading to the UK. She also claimed that London mayoral candidate Susan Hall - who sparked a backlash by claiming the capital's Jewish community is fearful of Sadiq Khan - was victim of a "character assassination".

And then there is the Tory cabinet minister who boasted she'd blocked tighter restrictions on shotgun ownership in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

The paper says that Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told a fringe meeting at Tory Party conference there'd been 'a potential reaction that would have made it much harder for you to have shotguns' She went on to say that she stopped that:

In August 2021, 22-year-old Jake Davison from Plymouth, shot and killed five people, including his mother, and injured two others before fatally shooting himself. The Government launched a consultation into tightening up gun licensing laws in the wake of the shooting.

But in June the Government announced changes would not go ahead because "the vast majority of licensed firearms holders are law abiding and cause no concern." And Policing minister Chris Philp said "additional controls on shotguns are unnecessary and would have a negative impact on their legitimate use.”

The Plymouth Herald reported local MP Luke Pollard had demanded an apology from Ms Coffey, who made the remarks - first reported by the Guardian - at a conference lunch sponsored by the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC).

He said: “I am stunned and disappointed that the former Deputy Prime Minister would boast about obstructing gun law reform after the Plymouth tragedy. We have long suspected that there were Conservative Ministers siding with the shooting lobby behind closed doors to prevent change. Now we know who. Therese Coffey must apologise to the victims' families and to Plymouth, both for her remarks today and for her actions to sink reform."

Earlier this year, following an intense five-week inquest into the shootings, Plymouth's senior coroner Ian Arrow laid down a series of recommendations in his Prevention of Future Deaths report. He warned that there was "a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken" adding that he had concerns - voiced by a number of witnesses at the inquest, including senior police officers - that the Firearms Act of 1968 "requires root and branch reform" to achieve this.

The real worry is not that so-called mainstream politicians said any of these things, but that their views are becoming mainstream within the government.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Give us the money

Every political decision has conmsequences, and HS2 is no exception. As commentators have pointed out even 'The Thick of it' would not have staged a political conference in Manchester, only to use it to cancel a major transport route to...Manchester! Rishi Sunak and his Tory cronies are beyond satire.

Nevertheless, as the Independent reports, the Manchester leg of HS2 is being considered for cancellation, as was the Leeds leg before it, leaving high speed rail and the levelling up agenda hanging over a political cliff face.

But, what does this mean for Wales? As readers of this blog will know, the Welsh Government is entitled to receive a roughly 5.9% share of any capital expenditure in England under the Barnett formula. But a major row broke out, as HS2 was classed by the Treasury as an England and Wales scheme on the entirely spurious argument that it would benefit North Wales through its links with Crewe. 

This decision effectively deprived the Welsh Government of £5 billion that could have been used to fix our own transport infrastructure.

But if the Manchester link is cancelled, the Treasury's argument falls down and the project becomes unarguably, essentially an England only one. 

I hope Welsh Ministers are poised to take the argument to Whitehall that UK Ministers' reasons for not giving us the £5bn no longer exist, and that they demand that the money is paid over immediately.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Tories not so pro-business after all

The Independent reports on the government admission that new post-Brexit border checks set to come into force in 2024 will cost UK companies at least £330m a year.

The paper says that additional red tape on food, animal and plant products imported from the EU had been due to be phased in from October – but was pushed back amid fears the extra costs will add to inflation:

A Tory Cabinet Office minister revealed the expected annual cost in an answer to a senior Labour MP, following warnings from industry it will push up prices and drive some small firms out of business.

Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe said: “It will depend greatly on how businesses adapt their business models and supply chains to integrate the new controls regimes.”

“We estimate these new costs of the model at £330mn p.a [per annum] overall, across all EU imports,” she wrote in the letter to Stella Creasy, chair of the Labour Movement for Europe.

Ministers were accused of “absolutely shambolic” handling of the rollout after the decision to delay the new model was reported back at the beginning of August.

The government announced a three-month delay to the health certificates required for imports, which will now brought in from 31 January. Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on medium-risk food, animal and plant products come into force on 30 April.

A new charge of up to £43 per imported consignment comes alongside separate fees for customs agents and SPS inspections on the way.

abinet Office minister said “around half” of the £330m annual cost was accounted for by export health certificates – but said it represented a “saving” for business of £520m from the original plans for checks.

The Cabinet Office minister said “around half” of the £330m annual cost was accounted for by export health certificates – but said it represented a “saving” for business of £520m from the original plans for checks.

But Ms Creasy insisted it was not a “saving”, adding: “British companies struggling with border paperwork to import food will have little choice over these charges meaning it’s likely British consumers will have to pick up the bill,” she said.

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, told the Financial Times: “It is a shame that it has taken so long to just admit this candidly. What is not included in this original estimate is the cost of confusion, delayed deadlines and ongoing uncertainty.”

So much for the Brexit Tory party being pro-business.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Immoral and wrong

At last, a high-ranking official, who is in the position to know, has unwittingly revealed that what we are all thinking about the plan by right wing Tory Ministers to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, may well be correct.

The Guardian reports that Johnston Busingye, high commissioner of Rwanda, backs the UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to his country, but said ministers needed to examine the driving forces of migration. He said it was “immoral” for Britain to claim to be a compassionate country:

Busingye was covertly filmed in a meeting in a London club in an investigation by the campaign group Led By Donkeys conducted with the journalist Antony Barnett. The ambassador was told he was meeting a businessman from a south-east Asian company wanting to invest in his country.

His scathing comments are published after Braverman last week called for reform of the global migration system, warning uncontrolled migration was an “existential challenge” to western nations.

The investigation also raises new questions over the government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and its record on human rights. The court of appeal ruled in June the plan was unlawful and the government has appealed to the supreme court, with a hearing in October.

Busingye appeared to speak dismissively about evidence that 12 refugees were shot dead by police in Rwanda in 2018. He said: “Yes, it might have happened, but so what?” The ambassador said this weekend in response to questions from the Observer that the fatal shootings in western Rwanda were a tragedy.

During the meeting at the Travellers Club in St James’s in August, he was asked what he would say to the prime minister or home secretary about the UK’s immigration policy. He responded by saying he would tell them it was “absolutely wrong”.

“They should have a long-term idea,” he said. “They should have a long-term policy of making it a choice for people not to risk their lives coming to the UK. Because right now, many people are not coming here because of war in their country. No, they’re coming here because they are hopeless. They’re coming here because they have no future.”

He said it was “immoral” for the UK to regard itself as a compassionate country. “[It] is immoral for this country to still see themselves as the refugee country, the solace country, the protection country, the compassion country,” he said. “They enslaved millions of people for 400 years. They destroyed India, they destroyed China, they destroyed Africa.”

The ambassador seemed perturbed over the media coverage of the fatal shootings of Congolese refugees protesting outside a UN high commissioner for refugees office in the Karongi district over cuts to food rations in February 2018.

He said: “Well, there is an incident in 2012 where the police shot 10 refugees. Yes, it might have happened, but so what? Here in the UK, someone is shot every day and it is on BBC and it is everywhere.”

The ambassador said this weekend that he got the year of the shootings wrong. The reported number of dead is at least 12, according to reports compiled by Human Rights Watch.

During the meeting, the ambassador appeared reluctant to give a categorical assurance that any refugees transported to Rwanda from the UK would never be returned to their home country.

He said: “Even if it happened, in the unlikely event that it happened, how many times would it happen? And in broad daylight? We have a double British and Rwandan supervisory committee. It’s very independent.” Busingye was confirmed as high commissioner for Rwanda, an ambassadorial-level appointment, in March 2022, despite opposition from some MPs, including former Tory leaderIain Duncan Smith.

Busingye was justice minister when Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts in saving more than 1,200 people from death were documented in the film Hotel Rwanda, was allegedly abducted and detained on charges including terrorism by the Rwandan government in August 2020 after being tricked into taking a chartered flight from Dubai to Rwanda.

We knew already that the government had abandoned compassionate conservatism some time ago, and that many of their policies are racist and in defiance of international law, this covert interview just confirms that.

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